House set to vote again on STEM visas

Republicans change their science, technology, engineering and math graduates visa bill in effort to improve support

WASHINGTON - For a second time in as many months, U.S. House Republicans will try to win approval of legislation to issue up to 55,000 so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) visas to students who earn advanced degrees at U.S. universities.

A vote may come by the end of this week.

The STEM visa bill has a good chance of passage because this time the legislation will only require a simple majority. Its chances of winning passage in the Senate and making it to the president's desk are less certain.

In September, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill sponsor and head of the judiciary committee, brought up the STEM visa bill on a suspension calendar, which required a two-thirds vote, or about 290 ayes, for approval. It came up short, 257 to 158 because of Democratic opposition.

The bill that Smith is reintroducing is largely the same bill as the previous version, but with a few changes.

The bill allows unused STEM green cards made available in fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1, through 2016, to be rolled over in future years. The previous version didn't include a roll-over provision.

The new legislation makes it easier for families to stay in the U.S. while they wait for a green card. Under current law, if someone were to receive a STEM visa and then got married, the spouse will likely haven to wait outside the U.S., potentially for years, for a green card.

A new provision makes a visa available to spouses and minor children of STEM visa holders, allowing spouses to live in the U.S. while they pursue permanent residency, but they won't be authorized to work.

A provision in the bill that eliminates the diversity lottery remains unchanged. It repurposed the 55,000 visas issued through that lottery to create STEM visas, which Democrats opposed last time.

The Republicans didn't want to increase immigration overall, which underpinned their argument for eliminating the visa lottery. Democrats opposed elimination of the diversity visa, and also claimed the bill would actually reduce immigration because of the absence of a visa rollover provision, which was addressed in the bill's post-election changes.

There is support on both sides for a STEM visa bill. Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, introduced her own bill with a similar goal, but it was broader in many ways.

After Smith's bill failed, Sen. Chuck Schumer said a bipartisan agreement "can easily be ready for the lame duck session." At about the time Smith's bill failed, Schumer introduced his version of a STEM visa bill that didn't eliminate the visa diversity law.

In a report released today, the IEEE-USA examines employment-based immigration worldwide, arguing that the 1990 visa lottery made itself unnecessary, and some of its original goals, "to correct for the history that had cut off immigration from Europe behind the Iron Curtain and which had never allowed voluntary immigration from Africa" have been met.

"There is now a self-sustaining flow of family and employment based immigration from all regions of the world, including the two specifically targeted as underrepresented in the 1990 Act," wrote the IEEE, which has urged passage of a STEM visa bill.

If the Senate decides to take up a STEM visa bill in the lame duck session, a point of controversy may be over how many colleges and universities will be considered STEM producing institutions. Schumer was critical of the House bill as being too expansive, but Smith claimed it wasn't.

In an earlier analysis of that bill, the Economic Policy Institute said that more than 200 schools qualify under it, too many in its view to ensure that only the "best and brightest" were granted STEM visas. It also said the House bill could allow that list to be expanded with waivers.

The greater tempest may be whether Congress is willing to take up an immigration bill apart from a comprehensive bill. Lawmakers, who support comprehensive reform and laws such as the Dream Act, have blocked efforts to take up immigration piecemeal, less they lose support for a broader effort. But that was before the most recent election.

The STEM visa bill may be the first opportunity Congress has to test itself on immigration post-election.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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